Interview on ABC RN Drive with Patricia Karvelas
Meeting with state and territory Education Ministers; Delivering real needs-based funding for schools and fixing Labor’s model; Higher education reforms to drive better outcomes for students and taxpayers

Patricia Karvelas: It's six past six. The government's quest to end the school funding wars began today with a meeting of state education ministers. Gonski 2.0 is worth $18.6 billion over the next decade, but is less than the original funding plan set out during the Gillard Government, something the states have not forgotten. Whatever arrangements are to be made, the clock is ticking. Many of the school funding agreements expire at the end of this year. And let's not forget, the government still has to pass this measure through the Senate. 

Senator Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Education and training. Minister, welcome back to RN Drive. 

Simon Birmingham: G'day, Patricia. Good to be with you. 

Patricia Karvelas: The current Gonski funding is set to finish at the end of this school year. What happens if you can't get the states on board by then? Because they've walked out of the meeting this afternoon no more convinced than they were last week. 

Simon Birmingham: Well, Patricia, we're not seeking to strike funding deals with the states. We're seeking to pass through the Parliament a framework that ensures David Gonski's recommendations for consistent, fair, needs-based funding of schools across Australia are put into effect through Commonwealth funding arrangements. 

So this is a matter that we will, and are, moving to legislate. We've already put the legislation into the House of Representatives. It's before a Senate inquiry at present, and as a result of that we hope to get that legislation through that will see an additional $18.6 billion invested across Australian schools. 

It will see the largest share of growth go into the neediest schools in the government sector in particularly, which will see growth in excess of 5 per cent per child, per school, per annum, for the next 10 years. 

Real and significant growth into those neediest schools, and that's what I hope and trust the Senate will pass, and then the states would then work with us to ensure that money is then used as effectively as possible in terms of supporting educational excellence in Australian schools. 

Patricia Karvelas: David Gonski's report to the Government is not due until December at the latest, meaning new funding arrangements will be in place before schools can see his recommendations. How can you expect them to sign up when they don't know the obligations on them for the funding?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we don't, Patricia. We will work through with the states in terms of basic principles and arrangements to ensure the growth in funding for next year flows. And as I said, on the very day on which we announced the new approach and had David Gonski standing there alongside Malcolm Turnbull and I, embracing us and giving his support for these reforms, we recognise that we will get his report back at the end of this year. 

We will then spend a few months analysing that with the states and territories, and non-government school stakeholders as well, and look to have in place reform arrangements in Australian schools to really ensure that this record-level investment delivers educational excellence across the country. We look to have those negotiated and settled by the middle of next year.

But that doesn't stand in the way of funding flowing next year. That will flow as a result of, we trust, high level support and agreement from the states who, I trust, will want to see the extra dollars that are on the table get into their schools, and then work with us to make sure that they're put to good use. 

Patricia Karvelas: You talk about trust, but they've walked out of this meeting saying they expect you to honour the deals that were originally offered to them. That they've signed up to Gonski on the premise that they would have the original deal signed up to. 

This includes New South Wales, which is obviously a Liberal Government. They're not going to take this lying down at all. They plan to fight this to the end. You have a fight on your hands. 

Simon Birmingham: Look, I'm not worried about the views of the states. Yeah, they will publicly posture, but privately, they were quite constructive in their discussions. Some of them…

Patricia Karvelas: So you're saying they're being dishonest. Because they've walked out of this meeting saying something, you're right, that they're not happy, that they want – but you're saying, in the meeting, different tune?

Simon Birmingham: Look, in the meeting, they got on with discussing the legislation as it is before the Parliament, the model the Turnbull Government's proposing, which treats all of them, over time, fairly and consistently. 

Let's understand, only three of the eight jurisdictions are actually fully-participating jurisdictions under deals that Julia Gillard sought to stitch up in 2013, which from the point of the 2014 budget onwards, it has been absolutely crystal clear to all and sundry that new arrangements would be in place from next year. So…

Patricia Karvelas: Well, you keep saying it was crystal clear, but they signed up to an agreement that they expect to be honoured, and they've made that crystal clear the entire time too, Minister. 

Simon Birmingham: Patricia, I know the states will always argue and ask for more money from the Federal Government. What we're proposing, though, is actually to deliver far more consistently what David Gonski proposed, and actually get on with the job of reform in terms of having fair, consistent, needs-based funding across all of Australia's schools. 

That will see, for the first time ever, the Federal Government provide one in five dollars into government schools right around the country, but to do so on a consistent basis, on the matter of the need of that school. With extra funding for students for disability, extra support for Indigenous students or those from low socio-educational backgrounds. 

Patricia Karvelas: Okay, could you be forced to negotiate with states – could you be forced to negotiate with states individually, giving you separate agreements?

Simon Birmingham: No, not when it comes to funding, because we have legislation before the Senate – or before the parliament, which will get to the Senate – that I trust will give us a methodology for fair, consistent, needs-based funding around the country.

And then we'll sit down with the states and territories to talk about some of the reform objectives that should be met to ensure that that money, that record and growing level of investment, is used as effectively as possible. 

Patricia Karvelas: And will further funding be quarantined until all states have accepted the recommendations and conditions that come out of David Gonski's second report?

Simon Birmingham: I'm not approaching this as a ‘gun to the head’ with the states when it comes to David Gonski's second report. I trust that they have as much faith in David Gonski when it comes to working with educators on recommendations for how funding is used as they have put in David Gonski for how funding is distributed. 

So I'm sure that, when we get his report, they'll work constructively with us to come up with arrangements where each of them seeks to implement that so that we can have confidence that with record…

Patricia Karvelas: Okay. 

Simon Birmingham: …growing levels of investment in funding, it's used as effectively as possible to benefit students, to help teachers, to deliver in our schools…

Patricia Karvelas: Alright. If you're just tuning in…

Simon Birmingham: …the type of things that really matter. 

Patricia Karvelas: If you're just tuning in to RN Drive, my guest is the Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, and our number is 0418 226 576. 

The Catholic sector is not happy with the plan, and you know this. You've referred to bullying. Do you regret some of the language you've used around the Catholic sector? 

Simon Birmingham: No. Look, I – that reference was certainly not specifically directed at any one sector, but it was simply an acknowledgement that, unlike previous times, where different states or different sectors have sought to extract special deals or special arrangements, we actually want to adhere to something that is uniform and consistent in the way that it applies. 

So when it comes to non-government schools, we're proposing that the funding methodology for every non-government school around the country should be the same and consistent.  That's all.  Nothing controversial about that.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay, but do you concede that you're going to be making some changes to what you've already announced? Like, for instance, the Catholic sector in the ACT is very angry.  Zed Seselja has made it quite clear that he's going to fight for them.

I've spoken to many MPs on your side of politics that say it is inevitable that you're going to have to change the deal for the Catholics in the ACT.  Is that right?

Simon Birmingham: We've said from day one that for schools that might face a particular level of adjustment under this funding that there was a pot of transitional funding that was available and that we'd talk to them on a case by case basis.

There might be a handful of ACT schools that fit into that category and, of course, we're working through all of those particular issues. But overall, across the countries Catholic schools in the Catholic school system see 3.7 per cent growth per student per annum over the next four years and 3.5 per cent growth per student per annum over the full 10 years.

Patricia Karvelas: Alright but you still need to get…

Simon Birmingham: That's strong growth above inflation, above wages growth.

Patricia Karvelas: Well yeah but it's not as much as they were originally offered, which was their argument.

Simon Birmingham: Well, the NCEC representatives sat around my table in Adelaide in discussions in consultation before we resolved this package and said as long as we get more than 3.5 per cent or at least 3.5 per cent and we've delivered on that.

Patricia Karvelas: You still need to get this through the Senate.  The Greens were positive at the start, it's still obviously a moving story.  Have you spoken to them?  Have you got them over the line?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I've been in contact with all of the non-government, non-Labor parties across the Senate and we will absolutely continue to have dialogue with them and I hope that they'll all support us. But I also hope that Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek come to their senses about this.

Patricia Karvelas: Well I doubt it.  I think we're wasting our time talking about that because Labor's certainly made it clear that they – in the Budget reply Bill Shorten delivered that he wants to bring back that $22 billion so I think you're going to be awaiting a long time, Minister, if you expect that.

Simon Birmingham: Patricia, Bill Shorten can choose to spend as much money as he wants and he can have a spend-a-thon if he wants to but this is about actually how it's fairly evenly distributed across the country as well.  Is he really saying that he would rather do is keep having hotchpotch deals with different states, prejudicing…

Patricia Karvelas: We'll put that to him when we speak to him.

Simon Birmingham: …one part of the non-government sector over another part of the non-government sector.

Patricia Karvelas: I want to bring you back to this issue.

Simon Birmingham: Well no, this is important.

Patricia Karvelas: Well I don't want to spend the interview speaking about Bill Shorten.

Simon Birmingham: [Indistinct]…no, but you say will we get our legislation through the Senate and the people who have lauded David Gonski's work for a number of years should recognise that David Gonski himself has endorsed the reforms…

Patricia Karvelas: Okay.

Simon Birmingham: …the Turnbull Government is putting forward and they should be held to account and actually…

Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] Just a quick one because we're running out of time, Minister, on higher education.  The threshold that you're making HECS payments be repaid at is being considered too low by people like Derryn Hinch.  Are you looking at negotiating on that repayment amount?

Simon Birmingham: When the higher education legislation comes back to the Senate, and that won't be for a couple of months because it's being referred to a Senate inquiry that won't report until August, then of course we'll, again, talk to all of the different parties around how we address that.

But in terms of the new repayment threshold for repayment of student loans, we also have introduced a new repayment rate at just one per cent.  So we're proposing a one per cent repayment rate…

Patricia Karvelas: [Talks over] But are you flexible…

Simon Birmingham: …$42,000 per annum…

Patricia Karvelas: Are you flexible about negotiating…

Simon Birmingham: …which equates to about $8 per week for a graduate to repay their student loan.  That's a fairly modest starting point.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay, Minister, I'm asking you are you flexible about negotiating on some of those concerns of the crossbench?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I'll always talk to the crossbench but we think this is a reasonable proposition.  It's 20 per cent above the fulltime minimum wage and it's asking for $8 a week for a student to start repaying or a graduate to start repaying their student loan.
Patricia Karvelas: Just a quick question on Anthony Albanese's speech.  He says the budget that you delivered well over a week ago now was a budget of ideological surrender.  Is he right?

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Absolutely not.  It's a budget that clearly delivers in terms of getting the budget prepared…

Patricia Karvelas: You haven't surrendered on ideology?  Because when I hear the Treasurer speak he says goodbye ideology.  In fact, he talks about it a lot.

Simon Birmingham:Look, we are unquestionably a government that wants to also see services delivered around Australia and investment in schools as we were just talking about, investment in support for Medicare, delivery of the National Disability Insurance Scheme but that's not about whether we have committed to ideology or otherwise.  We've always supported the NDIS.

Patricia Karvelas: There hasn't been an ideological surrender?

Simon Birmingham: No, far from it.  The – for a drive to make sure we bring the back to balance, it is still there.  We've made a difficult decision in doing so on the revenue side.

Patricia Karvelas: No, you're slugging people with taxes to get there.

Simon Birmingham: Yeah, we've made difficult decisions to say that given the Parliament has not supported some of our previous savings measures but given we put a priority – call it an ideological priority if you want, I think it's a practical one as well – given we put a priority on repairing the budget deficit we inherited from the Labor Party we'll make other decisions necessary to do that whilst protecting what we believe are essential services for Australians and schools, hospitals, disability services and the like.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, thank you so much for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: A pleasure, Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: That's Senator Simon Birmingham.  He's the Minister for Education and Training and he's joined us to talk about that meeting he had today.